by Walter Simmons
KALLOR Exhilaration—Dickinson and Yeats Songs • Adriana Zabala (mez); Gregg Kallor (pn) • GKM 50020-1 (37:40)
This handsomely packaged but rather sparingly filled compact disc represents my introduction to the music of American composer Gregg Kallor. Now 35, he was born in Cleveland, but raised in the Hartford, Connecticut area. As a youngster he studied both classical and jazz piano, and performed in jazz and rock groups. He earned his more “serious” credentials at Rutgers and the New England Conservatory. In 2007 he gave a “New York Debut,” where both substantial song cycles offered here were introduced, in performances by mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, accompanied by the composer. That concert seems to have been received with considerable enthusiasm.
Kallor joins the lineage of American composers who specialized in the neo-romantic art-song, a genre that follows from Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem through Lee Hoiby, Richard Cumming, and Thomas Pasatieri, up to Daron Hagen, Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon, and John Musto. Interestingly, this area of the contemporary repertoire has remained more stable, less subject to fashionable stylistic shifts than other classic genres. Like that of the aforementioned composers, Kallor’s language is consistently tonal, but flexibly so, with a richly textured harmonic language that embraces an expressive use of dissonance when appropriate. Viewed within this context, Kallor is clearly a gifted composer who handles the demands of the genre with considerable fluency and nuance. There is little obvious influence of other composers, except for the setting of Yeats’s “Ribh in Ecstasy,” in which the voice of Leonard Bernstein rears its head. Nevertheless, listeners who enjoy this area of the repertoire are likely to find Kallor’s music worthy of their attention.
All the music on this program was composed between 2005 and 2007. The chief offerings are the Yeats Songs, settings of five poems by the Irish master, and Exhilaration, settings of nine poems by Emily Dickinson. These two cycles are sandwiched between settings of Christina Rossetti’s When I am Dead, Dearest and of writer and composer Herschel Garfein’s Lullaby. The latter is the most tuneful, touching, and immediately appealing item on the disc. But the entire program warrants recommendation. Although none of the songs is “catchy” and likely to leave you humming the tunes, each is sensitively wrought, without a false, shallow, or meaningless gesture, while revealing subtle relationships to the text. The setting of Emily Dickinson’s “I should not dare to leave my friend” is an especially beautiful example.
Adriana Zabala has a lovely voice and displays meticulous accuracy and refined musicianship throughout the recording. However, when the vocal demands become particularly taxing she has a tendency to become hard and strident. Kallor appears to have no such reservations, however, based on his enthusiastic comments about her contribution. He is highly able in his role as accompanist.